Wrong-headedness killing the forests

Published September 1, 2002

When the Hayman Fire—the largest wildfire in Colorado history—first began, the smoke billowed over my office in southwestern Denver. Outside, I could smell the fumes from flames 50 miles away. Worst yet, I could see the ash in the air!

The night before, as my wife and I stood on our deck in the foothills west of Denver, we had smelled smoke and feared a fire was nearby. It wasn’t; what we smelled were the beginnings of the Coal Seam Fire some 110 miles west in Glenwood Springs.

A few days later, when I called a sheep rancher in Bayfield, I was told he had gone to protect his flock; the Missionary Ridge Fire was out of control near his grazing allotment.

Then, one of my attorneys was summoned home; the Hayman Fire was wildly out of control, moving much too fast toward Denver’s southwestern suburbs.

My attorney was not the only one trying to figure out what he should load into his car if the reverse 911 system rang his phone and he heard the recorded message every westerner fears: “Get out!” Today, the most frequent topic of conversation in the rural west is what to take and what to leave behind if and when the fires come. Storage facilities anywhere near timber country are quickly filling up as homeowners realize all they value will not fit in their cars, fully loaded with gas and backed into their garages or up their driveways.

Taking matters into their own hands

Westerners are also doing something else. The hills are alive with the sounds of chain saws as landowners cut away low-lying branches and fell dead trees, and the roar of mowers as owners cut bone-dry native grasses. Those with trucks are loading them with raked-up pine cones, needles, and the other slash that usually dots the landscape, hauling it off to county collection points. Those without trucks or friends from whom to borrow them are bagging up the debris and stacking the porcupine-looking bundles at their front gates.

There is some great irony in what these homeowners are doing. For years and years, their neighbors have refused to do what everyone knows must be done to limit the destructive force of wildfires. No, it is not their human neighbors who have failed to perform this essential task; it is their federal government neighbors: land management agencies like the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

The federal agencies have been aided, abetted, and encouraged in their negligence. As one Forest Service official said amidst the national disaster that is Arizona’s wildfires, “It only takes one person with a stamp to throw a wrench into the works [of thinning the forest].”

Armed with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual donations, environmental groups have bought stamps—and lawyers—to file appeals and lawsuits to halt the pursuit of forest health on our nation’s public lands. Remarkably, the environmental groups that lobby against prudent forestry practices disclaim responsibility for the wildfire epidemic. As one environmental group representative testified recently before Congress, “Hey man, it’s not us, it’s the weather!”

There is little that can be done about the head cases who set fires, like the sad soul who started the Hayman Fire, the sicko who lit more than 15 fires along U.S. 285 south of Denver, or the slack-jawed idiots who keep tossing cigarettes or torching campfires despite warning signs every half mile and acrid smoke billowing overhead.

But we can do something about the wrong-headedness that creates as national policy a point of view that wildfires are “nature’s way” and the proper prescription for western forests. That may sound dreamily sensible in a Starbucks in Washington, DC, but from where I sit amidst the burning forests of Colorado, it is not just insane, it is inhumane.

William Perry Pendley is president and chief legal officer of the Mountain States Legal Foundation.